Steve Sutherland reviews Hamlet – at the RSC until 13th August
TO be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.
We all know the words; we must have heard or read them hundreds of times, here and there, at school or college, or misappropriated by ads. They’re so familiar they trip off the tongue without troubling us too much with their meaning. So why start this review with the murderous uncle of all dramatic clichés?
Because precisely 11 hours before our performance of Hamlet, the news broke that an undetermined number of suicide bombers had mingled with morning commuters at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek Metro station, and blown themselves to bits; an attack which many pundits were suggesting was revenge by the Islamic State for the capture, a few days earlier, of Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in the December Paris bombings.
World leaders were making statements, social media was abuzz. What to do about it?
Some cried for vengeance, an eye-for-an-eye; others cautioned forgiveness, understanding and peace — the very dilemma posed some four centuries ago by Hamlet. ‘To be, or not to be…’ Re-visit them now for on Tuesday night the words came back to life.
It’s a pretty common device to update a play to an era more modern than its original setting in a bid to keep it interesting for the audience, but in relocating his Hamlet to a vague present performed by a mostly black cast, director Simon Godwin has achieved the miraculous — a profound reanimation.
Set in a multicultural Europe, enjoying rich African influence, this Hamlet shakes off the moody Gothic Denmark of yore — no one wears black! — for a vibrant, throbbing, bright today which serves to drag the Bard’s age-worn words out of the shadows and reacquaint them with their meanings. The effect is simply startling.
Much of this transformation is down to Paapa Essiedu, a young north Londoner of Ghanaian descent, whose brilliant portrayal of the Prince as a charmingly sulky capricious teen gives a welcome kiss of life to the play’s previously under-appreciated comic element.
His Yorick scene with Ewart James Walters’ grave digger is a particular hoot, the laughter helping achieve a real-life balance which ultimately serves to render believable the play’s Hammer Horror end.
Not to stretch the point too far but when Essiedu’s Hamlet comes upon Clarence Smith’s creepily Machiavellian Claudius intending to exact vengeance for his father’s death then withholds because the fratricide is at prayer and would most likely go to heaven instead of the hell Hamlet wishes for him, the scene cannot help but raise the issue of martyrdom and how to deter a terrorist foe who is avid to die.
It’s testament to how magnificently alive this new production of Hamlet is that such contemporary concerns are raised and revealed shockingly eternal.
The cast as a whole are truly excellent but special props should go to Tanya Moodie’s elegant Gertrude and Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia, again a typical dizzy teen whose early domestic exchanges with her fumbling father Polonius, played sympathetically like a daft dad by Cyril Nri, make her descent into self-harming madness an all-too familiar scenario.
Hamlet down the years, and its many legendary performances, has revealed itself to be about many admirable things — a rebuttal of the rigid revenge tragedy tradition, new ways versus old ways, the afterlife versus this one, cowardice versus valour, the relationship of greed to ambition, action to inaction, madness versus sanity.
But this latest Hamlet reveals itself concerned with something much more surprising. To be or not to be… Who knew? It’s all about us!